Friday, November 17, 2023

REM #13: Around the Sun

Release Date: October 5, 2004

Members: Michael Stipe (vocals); Peter Buck (guitars); Mike Mills (bass, keyboards)

Additional Musicians: Scott McCaughey (keyboards, percussion); Ken Stringfellow (keyboards); Q-Tip (rapping on "The Outsiders); Bill Rieflin (Percussion); 

Produced by Pat McCarthy & REM

Track Listing: Leaving New York; Electron Blue; The Outsiders; Make It All Okay; Final Straw; I Wanted To Be Wrong; Wanderlust; Boy in the Well; Aftermath; High Speed Train; The Worst Joke Ever; The Ascent of Man; Around the Sun

"Leaving New York" opens Around the Sun, a poignant ode to New York City with melancholy post-9/11 subtext. Lyrically, the song speaks to the leaving the city and the end of a friendship. The electronica fused "Electron Blue" remains a favorite of Michael Stipes he described as a futuristic song that came to him in a dream. "The Outsiders" begins as a synth-pop song and ends Q-Tip providing a rap as a coda, which speaks to the political frustrations and inertia of the Bush era. "Make It All Okay" continues on in a similar vein speaking to miscommunication in a fraught relationship. 

"Final Straw" was written as a protest song about the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, but avoids topical references in favor of an oblique Socratic dialogue. Cultural and political disillusionment are expressed a bit more forcefully on "I Wanted to Be Wrong, Stipe sings "everyone is humming a song I don't understand." 

"Wanderlust" lightens the mood, with Stipe inhabiting a poetic wanderer in modern America, possibly imagining a reincarnated Kerouac. "Boy in the Well" conjures early REM with its minimal production and flickering Americana. "Aftermath" offers hope through gaining self-knowledge, REM at their stateliest. Atmospheric and moody, "High Speed Train" may actually work better if seeing it performed live. "The Worst Joke Ever" speaks to creativity and malaise. "The Ascent of Man" injects some much needed soul to counter the overcast mood of the record. "Around the Sun" ends the record on an upbeat note, promising to keep seeking for the answers as long as the world's still going. 

The album cover art features REM as fading shadows - and that suits Around the Sun. All members admitted to being bored and frustrated during the making of the record, sales were moderate, while reviews were tepid. The post 9/11 world, especially for idealists and Progressives, brought on disillusionment, and here REM flirts with succumbing to it, but not quite. The record can be read as a warm hug to their fans, pointing the way through introspection. 

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